In Defense of Starch

Like a celebrity on a downward spiral, starch has been getting a lot of press in the last few years…and most of it negative.  Unlike celebrities, starch doesn’t gain anything from the media exposure.  Although it may be unpopular, I’d like to take a moment to say a few words in defense of starch; a (recently) under appreciated, yet useful nutrient in horse diets.

But first, let’s start with what it is.  Starch is a complex chain of sugar molecules, which is the main source of energy for plants.  It is stored within the cell walls of the plant and therefore, considered a nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC).  Starch in horse feeds are most commonly sourced through grains such as oats, barley, corn, rice or wheat and the co-products of these grains such as corn distillers grains, rice bran or wheat midds. 

Glycemic response of oats and controlled starch diets, in horses

When ingested, starch molecules are broken down into smaller sugar molecules (glucose) that are readily absorbed. With the help of insulin, the glucose in the bloodstream is ‘picked up’ by muscles and other tissues to either be used to support activity or stored (as glycogen) for future energy needs.  Hard working and active horses need glucose and glycogen to support their activity levels and recovery from activity.   It’s also worth pointing out that NSC’s are a very efficient pathway to providing energy to the horse and to aid in muscle recovery (glycogen repletion), particularly in horses performing athletic activities.

Most horse owners know that too much starch at one time can overwhelm the horse’s digestive system.  That excess, undigested starch could leak into the hind gut where it can rapidly ferment, leading to an overproduction of gas and lactic acid, which in turn, could cause gas colic and/or acidosis which could then lead to laminitis or other issues.

You’re probably wondering, if it’s needed by horses for energy, but also potentially dangerous then how does the horse get what he needs without wreaking havoc?  The answer lies in the QUANTITY of starch consumed in each meal.

The majority* horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.   This is not to say, all at one time.  There is a big difference!  Consider the digestive system of a horse to be like a waterway – it can tolerate a certain quantity of water running through it (or in this example starch) but if there is too much at one time, the water overflows and goes where it is not supposed to go.  Same with starch in the digestive system – the body can handle a moderate quantity of starch released at a controlled rate, but too much at one time (or from too big of a meal) and the whole system gets out of whack. 

I offer up one last nugget to consider: oats – the long-time staple of ‘safe’ feedstuffs for horses, actually contains approximately 40% starch. Now there’s something to think about…

So, in defense of starch, I’d just like plead the following.  When consumed in moderate amounts/meals,  frequently over time, starch is a useful and practical source of energy for most horses. 

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to evaluate starch levels in feeds.  Stay tuned for more….

*Horses diagnosed with a form of Equine Metabolic Disease (EMS) require a diet that is closely managed to control and limit the amount of NSC (including fructan from forage) in their diet. 

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

Managing The Horse With Cushing’s

The vet has diagnosed it and the reality begins to sink in – your horse has Cushing’s disease. Now what?  Cushing’s is an endocrine disease caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland that is most often seen in older horses and ponies. This tumor results in high cortisol and is most often exhibited by  hyperglycemia (high glucose), excessive thirst, excessive eating, excess urination and a shaggy haircoat.  At this time there is no cure for Cushing’s but by keeping a close eye on nutrition and management, we can improve the quality and possibly lengthen the life span of a Cushing’s horse.

Routine is important to the Cushing’s horse because changes in diet, medication, etc. can have negative effects on health.  Cushing’s horses have a compromised immune system and for that reason, seemingly small or mundane parts of their care become very important.  There are a few management practices that are particularly important: 

  • Deworming – Cushing’s horses can be more susceptible to parasites because of their weakened immune system.  Work closely with your vet to develop a deworming schedule and program that is catered to your horse. Your vet should also be seen regularly for dental care and wellness exams.
  • Farrier Care– Regular farrier visits are important because certain types of leg and foot conditions are more likely with a Cushing’s horse, such as abcesses of the hoof and laminitis. Signs of laminitis can be a tender footed stance and the horse acting like he is “walking on egg shells”. 
  • Grooming – Hair coat and temperature regulation are problems in Cushing’s horses so you will want to help your horse as much as you can by preventative grooming practices. Consider body clipping in hot/humid weather and be mindful of temperature and weather changes. When blanketing, make sure the hair coat is dry and clean to help reduce the incidence of skin issues. Prompt treatment of any wounds or infections is essential.
  • Feeding– One of the main goals in feeding the Cushing’s horse is to control the starch + sugar (NSC) content per meal. This helps to regulate the blood glucose and insulin levels.  The NSC content of the concentrates fed to the horse is important, but even more so is the content of the hay /forage and the combination of the two together. Some guidelines have suggested an NSC maximum value of 10-13% based on the total diet (forage + concentrate). Testing your hay will give you a good idea of the NSC values.
  • Consider a feed that is fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and complexed trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support the immune system.

Following these tips will help improve the quality and possibly length of life for the horse diagnosed with Cushing’s.  If you have specific questions regarding your horse, please work with a qualified nutrition consultant or your veterinarian.

Feeding Tips for Stall Rest

Regardless of the diagnosis, when stall rest is on the treatment list, adjusting your feeding program to match your horse’s lack of activity can improve the experience for both you and your horse.

Horse on stall rest
As a curious 2 year old, Toby injured himself and landed in stall rest-land.

Whether recovering from an injury, surgery, or other, stall rest is generally prescribed to limit the movement of your horse to aid in the body’s natural healing process.  Often times, when a horse’s activity level moves from work or competition to that of quiet stall rest, it takes a period of adjustment for him to settle into the new routine.

Altering his feeding program to match this now sedentary lifestyle will help him make the transition.  Please note: all feed and forage changes should be made gradually through a period of 5-7 days so as not to disrupt the digestive system.

For the horse sentenced to a period of stall rest, the name of the game is energy management.  If he is an athlete who is used to getting high calorie feed and plenty of exercise, transition him to a lower calorie feed or ration balancer, with a high quality grass forage.  Reducing the energy he receives from his feed will help manage his weight and behavior.

Selecting a feed that is balanced for amino acids will offer the body aid in the development and repair of tissues, especially muscle and connective tissue. Fortified, balanced levels of vitamins and minerals will aid in immune response as well as minimize bone density loss.  Feed that is fortified with prebiotics, such as yeast culture, and probiotics can aid in the balance of the gut bacteria, overall absorbtion of nutrients and supports the immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids in the feed can also provide support for the immune system as well as help manage inflammitory response in tissue.

Monitor his body condition score and weight throughout stall rest and make feed amount adjustments as needed.  If he begins to gain weight, reduce his feed amount to the lowest advised amount from the feed manufacturer.

If he drops too much weight, slowly increase the feed amount, making sure to stay within the feeding directions.  Increasing the amount of hay can also provide benefits, though keep watch that he doesn’t start wasting.  Health complications or hay quality concerns aside, uneaten hay is an indication that he is being fed too much per meal.

In addition to providing much needed fiber and calories, hay in the stall can also provide a distraction,  curbing destructive behavior such a cribbing, weaving and pawing.  Consider providing stall toys, such as a ball or treat roller to keep his mind occupied and prevent bad stall habits from forming.

Pending the doctor’s orders, hand walking is a common method of providing limited exercise while reducing the chances of further damaging the injury or wound.  Hand walking is also a great way to spend time with your horse, especially if stall rest has taken him away from his normal job.

Once the period of stall rest is completed and he goes back to ‘work’,  transitioning his feed back to the ‘normal’ energy levels should be done with even more caution than transitioning the energy down.  For advise on your specific situation, please discuss with a qualified feed consultant or your veterinarian.

Feeding Tips for Horses with Laminitis

Laminitis in short, is the inflammation of soft tissue in the hoof causing damage to or death of the laminar cells, resulting in the loss of the foot’s mechanical integrity.  The severity of damage is unique to each case with the worst damage resulting in founder which is the sinking of the coffin bone.

Overall management and feeding of horses with laminitis requires special care, since factors such as body weight, starch intake, mineral and energy balance, as well as metabolic function can have a profound effect on the fragile environment of the damaged tissue of the hoof.  If you are managing a horse currently being treated for laminitis or one with a history of laminitis, the most important element of overall care is staying connected to your vet and farrier.  When it comes to feeding, here are some nutrition tips to help you along the way.

  • Weight: weight control and regular exercise help any horse physically and mentally, but the laminitic horse in particular.  Excess weight and stagnation add unneeded stress to an already fragile situation. Once the acute phase has passed, regular turn out and exercise provide essential blood flow to the foot, which provides the nutrients for tissue repair.  Activity is also helpful in managing weight.
  • Pasture:  Lush pasture access should be limited by a grazing muzzle for horses prone to laminitis or those currently being treated for it.  If a grazing muzzle is not available, the horse should be limited to access later in the day when plant sugar (fructans) levels in grass are lower, or be kept on a dry lot.
  • Forage: High quality grass hay is the ideal forage for a horse prone to laminitis.
  • Feed: A product specially formulated for metabolic issues or a ration balancer are the best bet to feed your laminitic horse.  Micro nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are essential for tissue repair, so be sure to check that the feed is balanced for these as well as the essential amino acids.   Avoid feeds which provide high levels of starch per meal as these horses tend to be sensitive to increases in blood sugar and insulin.
  • Supplements: Horses with laminitis may benefit from supplemental magnesium and chromium, both of which assist in sensitivity to insulin.
  • Water: Often overlooked as a nutrient, water is one of the best allies in the defense of laminitis in your horse.  Fresh, clean tepid water is a key to overall health as well as circulation of nutrient rich blood.

Following these guidelines for feeding and management, as well as working closely with your veterinarian and farrier should provide you with the tools you need to manage laminitis in your horse.  With extra care and help from the trusted professionals in your life, your horse with laminitis can live a happy, balanced life.

Hoof Health and Nutrition

If your horse has ever had issues with his/her feet, the old adage, ‘no hoof, no horse’ could not ring truer.  When considering hoof health, multiple factors influence the state of your horse’s feet including nutrition, conformation, environment, use and overall management and care.  When assessing your nutrition program in relation to hoof health, there are many key components that need to be present for healthy hoof maintenance and growth. 

  1. Water is the most important nutrient for horses overall.  Specifically for feet, adequate amounts of water provide tissue hydration and promotes the circulation needed to deliver nutrients to the living hoof tissues.
  2. Balanced energy in the diet is important to support metabolic activity, the growth and function across the entire body system, including the feet. 
  3. Balanced proteins (aka amino acids) provide structural strength and function for hoof tissues. Lysine, Methionine and Threonine are the three most commonly associated with hoof growth.  It is imperative that amino acids be present in balanced levels along with key minerals and vitamins.  The ability for the body to absorb these critical nutrients is dependant on the delicate balance of them and too much of one or another can disrupt the utilization of these key nutrients.
  4. Macro minerals include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and sulfur.  The appropriate balance of macro minerals play a key role in skeletal development and maintenance, blood clotting, muscle contraction, temperature regulation, enzyme activity regulation, glandular secretion and cell membrane integrity. 
  5. Micro minerals (aka trace minerals) include zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, selenium and more. Trace minerals help with the synthesis of proteins, immune system activity, synthesis and maintenance of elastic connective tissues, the integrity of skeletal bone tissue, antioxidant activity and much more.
  6. Vitamins, both fat and water soluble, play a key role in the formation, maintenance and repair of hoof tissues. Vitamin A,D and E aid in bone and muscle growth, maintenance of healthy epithelial tissue, calcium metabolism control, immune response and activity.  Vitamins C and B-biotin, both water-soluble vitamins, aid in antioxidant activity, lipid metabolism, as well as growth and maintenance of tissues. Biotin aids in the cell-to-cell adhesion in the outer hoof layer.

If you are feeding a commercially produced complete feed, check the guaranteed analysis for these nutrients.  It is also important to check that you are following the feeding directions so the proper levels of nutrients are making it in your horse.  Feed companies formulate the nutrient density and balance based on their feeding directions.  Feeding less than recommended amount means your horse is likely not getting enough of the balanced nutrients he needs.

Hoof supplements are widely available and varied.  If you are feeding a complete feed from a commercial manufacturer that guarentees levels of the nutrients listed above,  you likely do not need to supplement for hoof quality. However, special cases require additional nutrient supplementation.  It is best to work with your vet, farrier and a qualified nutrition consultant to determine the best feed and supplementation program for your horse.

Feeding a horse that has established foot issues such as laminitis takes special care,  as he needs the nutrients in feed but likely not the energy provided.  Excessive levels of starch and sugar per meal increase spikes in glucose and insulin which may have a negative impact on feet.  A low calorie feed or ration balancer  fully fortified with vitamins, minerals and amino acids is your best bet for these special cases. 

Finally, if you have specific questions about your feeding program, check with a qualified nutrition consultant for more information.  A combination of regular hoof care , the right nutrition and proper management for your horse will go a long way in keeping him or her sound for years to come.

Transition to Spring Pasture

It is no wonder these guys are asking to be let out onto the lush spring grass after such a long and trying winter.  What horse owner could resist those molten brown eyes and soft whisper-nickers, as if saying ‘Let me out, I’ll be good…I promise!’   

We work hard and do our best to provide our horses what they need; pasture seems all too natural to resist. It’s only when you understand the unique nutritional properties of early spring forage, that you can feel better about saying ‘not yet’!

If your horse survived the winter on hay, a hasty  introduction to ‘rich’ spring grass can cause a shock to his digestive system.  If at all possible, keep your horse off grass during the initial growth period by designating a ‘sacrifice’ area or dry lot.  The size of the dry lot will depend on your available land, but generally should be large enough to allow your horse to move about freely and stretch his legs. The sacrifice area serves to protect your emerging pasture as well as allowing you an opportunity to ease your horse’s digestive tract onto new-growth grass. If he is kept in a dry lot during this time, you may consider hand walking, lunging or additional work sessions to keep him from becoming too fresh. 

So what is different about spring grass that we should heed warning? As the strong spring sun warms the earth, the grass in your pasture emerges from its winter dormant state. The first few blades have a critical job of transforming sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis, that starts the growth of the plant for the rest of the season.  This food is in the form of plant sugar (fructans) and is essential for the plant to grow into a productive pasture contributor for the remainder of the season. 

When overnight temperatures are cool (generally 40 degrees F) the stored energy created during the day is used to grow additional leaves and roots. Extra food not utilized overnight is stored in the plant tissues.  If overnight temperatures drop below 40 degrees F, the plant will not invest in growth and the sugars will remain in the leaves. This is when the new grass is of concern for horses.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when overnight temperatures remain above 40 degrees F, it is the ideal time to start acclimating your horse to the fresh spring grass, because the level of fructans in the grass are likely to be the lowest.

The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual, starting with a period of 15-20 minutes of grazing.  Gradually increase until you have reached your ideal turnout length of time; this may take the better part of a month.  During this time, it is important to monitor the output of your horse; loose, unformed stools indicate digestive upset likely correlated to the increased fructans. For horses with metabolic issues prone to digestive upsets, transitions should made later in the growing cycle onto mature grasses.  In addition to restricting time on pasture, a grazing muzzle can be used to further control intake.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a pasture full of healthy, green growing grass not only looks wonderful, it is  an investment in your horse’s nutrition. Allowing the early grass to grow and flourish, then gradually transitioning to grazing is an investment in your overall nutrition program. Armed with this information, don’t you feel better telling him to wait?

Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line – provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.

Horse Feed Storage for Freshness in Summer

As summer brings higher temperatures and humidity, it becomes crucial to pay extra attention to how horse feed is stored to maintain its freshness. Proper storage is essential to prevent spoilage and ensure the feed remains palatable and nutritious. Read on for valuable tips on storing horse feed during the summer months.

Feed room representing horse feed storage for freshness in summer

Choosing the Right Container for Feed Storage

When transferring feed from bags to containers, opt for a waterproof and sealable container. This type of container will keep pests, such as mice and insects, at bay and prevent unwanted moisture from reaching the feed. A waterproof container is especially important in case of unexpected water leakage in the storage area.

Importance of Location for Feed Storage

The location of the feed container is critical to maintaining feed freshness. Check that your designated feed room or storage area is not exposed to unnecessary moisture, such as leaks or sweating pipes. Elevating the feed bin off the floor can help prevent moisture damage in the event of rain or minor flooding. Additionally, assess whether the storage area is exposed to excessive heat, such as the south or west wall of metal-sided buildings. Relocating the feed bin to a cooler or dryer area within the barn or shed will help preserve feed quality.

Implementing FIFO Method for Feed Rotation

Consider practicing the First In First Out (FIFO) method to manage feed inventory. This method involves feeding the older feed from the bin before using the newly purchased feed. By following this approach, you can ensure that feed does not exceed its ideal shelf life and maintain freshness. Between feed rotations, periodically wash and thoroughly dry the storage container to remove any residue or build-up.

Proper storage of horse feed during the summer is essential for maintaining freshness and preserving its nutritional value. Choose a waterproof and sealable container to prevent pests and moisture from compromising feed quality. Ensure the storage location is free from unnecessary moisture and excessive heat. Embrace the FIFO method to prioritize the use of older feed first and regularly clean the storage container. By following these steps, you can optimize feed freshness and provide your horses with high-quality nutrition. Stay tuned for more information on factors affecting feed shelf life. Happy riding!

Feed Selector tool

Ready to ensure your horse is getting the optimum nutrition at feeding time, every time? Find the perfect feed formulated specifically for horse’s needs with our Feed Selector Tool.

Horse-Life Balance

Like many of you, I am fortunate to have my horses in my life. But having horses often means giving up time for other parts of my life, such as going out with friends, cleaning the house (oh darn) or other hobbies.  Horse people have a saying: if your house is clean, you’re not spending enough time in the barn.

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a small hobby farm with horses.  My parent’s told me that if I wanted to have horses as a ‘grown up’ that I needed good grades in school, to get through college and get a good job.  Horses are not exactly a low investment hobby, so I followed their advice.  Now that I have the degree, career and horses, time seems to be the biggest constraint.

There is a certain amount of irony to this; the job that pays for the horses is the biggest thing that keeps me from spending time with them.  I don’t believe that I am alone; countless other professionals or college students must have this same struggle. 

During the week, I get home after a long commute (I live out in the country so my horses can be with me), feed the horses, clean the barn and check fences.  If anything has been broken, it gets fixed.  Add in time to feed and care for the dogs, myself and it’s already late in the evening, nearly time to go to bed just to get up early for the long commute to work the next morning.

My solution so far has been to ‘schedule’ my saddle time.  Weather permitting I designate an evening during the week after work to be ‘horse night’.  If I’m too tired from work, I will only do grooming or ground work.  So instead of cleaning the house, walking the dog or weeding the garden, the horses get their much deserved attention.  This is a sacrifice I’m willing to make; I’m sure the weeds will be there tomorrow.

What do you do to strike the balance in your life?

Privacy Policy | Terms